The growing field of Republican Assembly candidates in the second legislative district will may face an uphill battle in their bid to retake Assembly seats the GOP had held for most of the last three decades.
“This will be an uphill battle,” said Montclair University political science professor Brigid Harrison, who has long lived in the district.
So far, Atlantic County Freeholder Director Frank Fromica, Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman, Freeholder John Risley and Somers Point Councilman James Toto have announced campaigns, and more candidates are likely to emerge in the months remaining before filing day.
Whoever ends up winning the nomination — through whatever process ends up being used — will likely face a tough race in a district that is bluer than Atlantic County as a whole.
“Even though the district has been competitive relatively recently, what we see demographically is that the changes are making this an increasingly-blue district. It’s becoming more and more Democratic if you look at the registration totals,” Harrison said. “That is not to say it won’t be competitive. It likely will be among the more competitive districts simply because of the partisan breakdown, but the trend thus far is that this is becoming increasingly Democratic.”
That trend is clearest in Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo’s victory margins, which have increased each cycle since he was first elected in 2013. That year, he beat John Amodeo by less than 100 votes. In 2015, he got roughly 1,400 more votes than Republican Will Pauls. In 2017, he got close to 7,000 more votes than Republican Vince Sera, whom Democratic Assemblyman John Armato beat by almost 5,000 votes.
To put those figures into perspective, Formica won reelection to the freeholder board this year by roughly 1,800 votes. While that margin may have seen some crunch as a result of voters’ views of President Donald Trump and Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew’s campaign, it’s difficult to tell how much voters’ anti-Trump sentiments will fizzle a year from now.
Resentment over Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure had some effect on those margins, Harrison said, but demographic trends in the district and the state’s new vote-by-mail law promise Republicans will see little relief in 2019’s contest, though low turnout caused by a lack of statewide or congressional office races could give Republican candidates a boost.
The two freeholders running also have solid name recognition in the district.
“You know the bakery. Everybody in the state probably knows the bakery,” Harrison said, referring to the Formica Bros. Bakery in Atlantic City, which incidentally will be 100 years old next year. “So that offers him off the bat the highest levels of name recognition.”
State Sen. Chris Brown will also be an invaluable asset to the two Republicans that make it through to challenge the Democratic incumbents.
He got more votes than Mazzeo in 2013 and 2015, when he was still an Assemblyman. He moved up to the senate in 2017 and will likely be looking to make the rest of his district’s delegation red, partly to blunt any Senate challenges he might get from Mazzeo or Armato in 2021.
Republican victories in Atlantic’s county-wide contests may appear to be a silver lining for the GOP heading into 2019, but even that might prove to be more of a grey streak than anything else.
“The district tends to be more Democratic than the county because some of the more rural areas that, just like everywhere else, tend to be more Republicans are not constituted in the legislative district,” Harrison said.
While Republicans hold a 6-3 majority on the freeholder board and the county executive seat, the three Democratic freeholders represent large swathes of the second district, which houses the majority of the county’s cities, including Pleasantville, Atlantic City and Ventnor.
To make matters worse, Republicans have to deal with a potentially-costly primary.
Freeholders Formica and Risley aren’t running on the same slate. Formica chose Holtzman as his running mate, while Risley and Toto are making a joint bid.
The Atlantic County Republican Organization has yet to back a candidate, and Republican County Chair Keith Davis told the New Jersey Globe it’s very possible more candidates join in the race. The ACRO will eventually pick a candidate for the party line, Davis said, but it’s not clear exactly when that pick will be made.
Others are already picking sides. The Atlantic City Republican Club announced it would back Toto and Risley Monday morning.
“If they decide this in a convention, fine, but if they decide to have a primary, then it becomes incredibly expensive,” Harrison said. “So if that’s the case — I’m assuming it will be decided in a convention — but there will be dissatisfied Republicans coming in no matter who the nominee is.”
While county committeepeople can’t pick candidates for the general election, they can give one side the county line. The candidates that don’t get chosen often drop out of the race, but they could choose to continue without the support of the county organization.
Expensive primaries that result from the latter option rarely help the candidates involved come the general election, but they could prove particularly harmful to the district’s Republican candidates.
Mazzeo and Armato are part of increasingly-low number Democrats at risk of losing their seats. That means they’ll more than likely get resources from party leaders.
While Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin would more than likely back any members of his caucus facing a tough election challenge, Harrison said the geography of the second legislative district will earn Armato and Mazzeo support from other South Jersey Democrats.
“Democrats in southern New Jersey have a vested interest in Craig Coughlin remaining the speaker, and that buys a certain amount of loyalty for Democratic members of the Assembly,” Harrison said. “I think that the South Jersey party organizations will do everything that they can to protect those seats, so given that, I think that Democrats will have an edge moving forward, especially with vote-by-mails.”
This article was updated with comment from Keith Davis at 9:30 p.m.